Community Evangelical Free Church rededicates World War I plaque

NILES — If not for the work of a Niles church and dedicated community sponsors, a tribute to a local World War I soldiers might have remained hidden and rusting under unruly bushes.

After discovering the plaque earlier this year on their property, Community Evangelical Free Church officials spent weeks working to restore the formerly corroded Honor Roll affixed to the front of a large boulder. Nearly a dozen community sponsors also contributed to the efforts.

On Veterans Day, the church invited the community to see the restored plaque, which lists the names of 28 residents who fought in World War I. A rededication ceremony took place and also sought to recognize the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

Nearly 200 people visited the church to take part in the ceremony. Prior to the rededication, speaker Andrew Churchill, a veteran who served in Iraq, addressed the crowd. He reminded people of the toll of World War I, which claimed millions of lives of soldiers and civilians alike. Knowing this, he asked them to think about the men listed on the plaque and what Armistice Day would have been like.

“What must it have been like for these men to know they were going home?” Churchill said.

After Churchill spoke, community members braved the chilly weather to see the restored plaque. Two flag poles were erected near the memorial and the bushes were removed to give people a clear view of the tribute. During the ceremony, Karri Witte, the Niles Amvets commander, played Military Taps.

While restoring the memorial, so that it could be recognized was an important part of the project. Pastor Matt Hickok said he also wanted to track down the relatives of the veterans listed. Standing in the crowd Sunday were at least two relatives, Dowagiac’s Thomas Ashley, the son of World War I veteran Orville Henry Ashley. Thomas and his son, Richard Ashley, also of Dowagiac took part in the ceremony.

“It looks nice,” Thomas said.

Richard agreed.

“It can be easy to overlook things like that,” Richard said. “[This] brought back a lot of memories of grandpa.”

Orville grew up on the south end of Niles and was drafted into World War I when he was about 21 years old in 1918. He was stationed in Fort Custer, Michigan, where he was part of the 160th Depot Brigade. Because the war was nearing its end, Orville was switched from the Infantry to a hospital orderly. While he did not see combat, he was exposed to lots of tragedy.

“His big memory of World War I was the Spanish Flu epidemic that went through the base while he was there,” Richard said.

Orville saw many killed by the epidemic, many of them young men training at the base to go to Europe, Richard said.

“It just goes to show that … sometimes the biggest casualty of war is disease and sickness,” Richard said. “He would not hardly talk about this. About everything that I’ve told you actually was told to me by his wife, my grandmother.”

Following his service, Orville returned to Niles. Eventually, he started a business Dowagiac, called O.H. Ashley Incorporated. His son Thomas also worked at the business. Richard would go on to serve in the air force from 1976 to 1992, though he said his grandfather wanted a different life for his family’s next generation.

“My grandfather wanted nothing more to do with war, or come WWII his three sons in the military. Nevertheless, all volunteered,” Richard said.

The commemorative plaque, was not a surprise to the Ashleys. In fact, they had visited the plaque before to pay homage to Orville years before the church restored it.

“It was pretty badly corroded at the time,” Richard said.

To help keep the memory of those listed alive, a local Boy Scout troop will be creating a memorial wall, where they will display some of the memorabilia that was presented at Sunday’s ceremony, including a photo of the plaque, information on the veterans and letters from legislatures.

Recently elected District 78 State Rep. Brad Paquette was also in attendance Sunday. As a former Niles New Tech teacher, Paquette said preserving materials, like the plaque, can help to provide today’s youth with historical context.

“Seeing something like this on a small [community] level is so important,” Paquette said. “Because so much wisdom passes and we need to pass it on to our young people. These ceremonies are a good way to do that.”

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